Have MS and Work From Home? Watch Your Screen Time
Before the pandemic took hold a year ago, 17 percent of US employees worked from home at least five days a week. That number now? 44 percent.1 New research suggests this new “hybrid” workplace model is here to stay.2 Remote work is easier than ever due to specialized technology and improvements in access to the internet.
Working from home with multiple sclerosis
It may also be easier to find and sustain a job for people with MS with mobility issues who can still navigate the internet with ease. However, while many of us with MS celebrate the opportunity to lose the commute, stay safe at home, and work in pajamas, a new concern emerges.
Excessive screen time is quickly becoming an occupational hazard. How might someone with MS, who works from home, avoid the problems associated with electronic devices?
Screen time: A necessary evil in a pandemic
Let’s face it: the workplace landscape requires screen time. Whether it’s checking email, collaborating on documents in the cloud, or participating in live teleconferences, working from home now requires consecutive hours spent in the same chair, in front of the same screen (or screens).
And then there’s the time after work when we stay online to watch YouTube, engage in social media, meet virtually with friends, or e-chat with a neurologist.
Problems due to too much screen time
Technology that allows us to do our jobs and stay connected isn’t inherently bad. But we can get too much of a good thing. Too much screen time can lead to:
Computer vision syndrome (CVS)
This describes vision problems arising from the prolonged use of computers, tablets, and phones.3 CVS can lead to visual strain that causes blurry vision, burning or dry eyes, and diplopia (double vision).4 If you’re already dealing with MS-related optic neuritis, then you may need to be more vigilant when symptoms occur.
Extended screen time was linked to “brain fog” well before the pandemic. Brain MRI research confirms that significant gray matter atrophy occurs in people who participate excessively in virtual activities. Also described as “digital dementia,” this cognitive disruption ultimately affects short-term memory, attention span, and concentration.5
We all recognize the pandemic’s impact on sleep. But even while awake, our days and nights “float” across hours less defined by the schedules that have normally shaped our time. When work, play, sleeping, and eating schedules don’t align, this chronically disrupts our circadian rhythms.
What’s more, work during the pandemic may push computer tasks or online meetings into the nighttime hours, further disrupting our rhythms and displacing time once spent sleeping. Meanwhile, MS already brings its own measure of fatigue. Further inconsistency in the timing of online work and disturbed sleep patterns only serves to worsen it.
People with MS experience muscle pain and neuropathy across the body. Sitting in front of a screen all day compounds this due to sedentary living, poor posture, and lack of circulation. Another kind of pain — headache or migraine pain— is also both a side effect of excessive screen time and a frequent problem for people with MS, independent of work status.6
Mental health concerns
Depression remains a common MS symptom. Working from home (especially if you live alone) isolates us in ways that can worsen that depression. Pandemic anxiety and job stress can also trigger MS relapse. And who among us with MS wants to enter a healthcare facility during a COVID-19 outbreak? Naturally, we're anxious.
Let’s face it; it’s hard to be diligent about self-care right now. Working from home in the US in 2020 led to greater sitting time and screen time with decreases in physical exercise, increases in junk food intake, and in some cases a higher workload or increased work hours for those working remotely.7,8
Weight gain results from the work-from-home lifestyle. Unfortunately, people with MS already deal with weight gain caused by fatigue, steroid use, and depression.9 Working from home becomes yet another risk factor.
The work-from-home model has proven to be productive for some workers, despite these health risks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to avoid its pitfalls.
Check out these suggestions for reducing screen time for people with MS who work from home.
- Set reminders for screen breaks.
- Call into meetings by phone (audio only).
- Disable nonwork notifications to improve productivity.
- Go outside, if weather permits; if not, visit a screen-free space.
- Use only one screen at a time.
- Avoid social media "rabbit holes" during work hours.
- Seek out pleasurable, screen-free off-work activities.
- Don’t sleep in your workspace; don’t work in your sleep space.
Does anyone experience worsening symptoms with cooler or cold weather more so than warm or hot weather?